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Inner Western Courier Thursday Not Used Anymore : June 17th 2009
48 INNER-WEST WEEKLY, Thursday, June 18, 2009 MB TRAVEL Up with the cloud-eaters LANA LAM As we float over suburbia, we exchange waves and banter with people on the ground. THERE'S something very satisfying about eating a cloud. The last time I gulped a mouthful of white fluffiness was when I went skydiving. But this time, my cloud-tasting comes unexpectedly as I'm mid-flight on a hot air balloon ride over western Sydney. It's my first ballooning experience and I'm giddy with excitement. Sure, I've jumped out of a plane in the Hunter Valley, abseiled down magnificent cliffs in the Blue Mountains, canyoned through gullies and rapids at Mt Wilson, and gone mountain bike riding through the Royal National Park. But this is the first time I've glided above a city, stealing a bird's eye view of the world in the comfort of a woven, velvet-lined basket. The day begins early as the group meets the Balloon Aloft team at Sydney Olympic Park at 5am. The company is a family-run business and was established more than 25 years ago. Manager and senior pilot Matt Scaife has been flying balloons for a decade. He's steering our 16-person balloon this morning and his calm demeanour on the ground and later in the air is reassuring. He informs us that there's northeasterly blowing, followed by a westerly. ''That means we'd be headed straight for the airport from here. Jumbo jets and balloons don't mix,'' he jokes. She's a fickle one, the wind, so after a few weather checks, we're bundled into a couple of mini-buses and head off to a nearby take- off site - an open paddock off a major highway. Matt releases a red helium party-size balloon to gauge the conditions. We watch as it gets smaller and smaller until it looks like the size of a full stop on this page. We drag the massive balloon out from a black box and stretch it out until it lies flat on the grass. Even completely deflated, it sparks excitement among the group. Boasting yellow, purple and green stripes, it is filled with cold air with the help of two huge electric fans. About 10 minutes later, the crown of the balloon is taking shape. The pilot then blasts a stream of hot air it, lifting the aircraft from its state of repose. It now stands tall and magnificent, the sound of the hot air filling it punctuated by the ohhs and ahhs from the group. We board the basket, which is divided into five sections -- four corner spots that fit four people each and a cosy spot in the centre for the pilot. It's 6.20am and we're off. The balloon can travel up to 30km/h and a rotation vent allows the pilot to control the movement and direction of the aircraft. Matt lifts the balloon to 2500ft and lets it glide across the cityscape of western Sydney. Our eyes greedily drink up all there is to see. ''Personally, I like flying over cities,'' Matt says. ''It's a great way to go house-hunting.'' Matt drops the altitude a bit, bringing us close enough to the world below to interact with curious onlookers. As we float over suburbia, we exchange friendly waves and casual banter with people on the ground. Some are still in dressing gowns, others drinking their morning coffees on balconies. Apart from the loud bursts of hot air, the ride is relaxing and calm. We hover over Stanhope Gardens and Kellyville before Matt prepares us for some cool relief courtesy of condensation. ''We might just pop into a bit of cloud here,'' he says. ''It might get a bit eerie.'' It's unmistakable as we pass through the cloud, the refreshing mist hitting my cheeks as I breathe in the droplets. As we brush past tree tops, I spot a handful of pink and grey galahs in the distance. How wonderful it feels to share their view, even for a moment. As I look around the basket, I see the broad appeal of ballooning. On one side, there's a young couple in love, basking in the romance of the breathtaking views. There's a mother and daughter on a birthday outing, an older couple celebrating their anniversary, and half-a-dozen members of the same family all enjoying the ride. We spend about an hour in the air before a smooth landing in Smithfield. The group heads back to Sydney Olympic Park for a glass of bubbly. As I sip on my glass of champagne, I'm reminded of Milan Kundera's magical realism novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, only my lightness of being is rather pleasant and entirely bearable, if not wonderful. UP... UP... AND AWAY Balloon Aloft offers a range of rides from a romantic two-person ride to group bookings. There are mid- week flights from Sydney Olympic Park starting from $295pp or weekend flights from Camden starting from $320pp (champagne and in flight photos not included). Flights over the Hunter Valley are also available. 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June 10th 2009
June 24th 2009